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Eyes closed, I grit my teeth as I suffer in silence, holding my breath and praying that I escape notice. Sweat drips down my face as my muscles strain, the effort making me light-headed, more strenuous than almost anything I’ve ever experienced before. Never again will I allow this to happen, I vow it with every fiber of my being. A panicked laugh escapes me, and my calves begin to quiver as I redouble my efforts, a low grunt escaping from my mouth as I do so. I may have drawn attention to myself, but I have no time to focus on other things, every ounce of my concentration brought to bear on the arduous task at hand.
Unable to withstand it anymore, I take a breath through my mouth but still a foul stench reaches my nose, and I continue to endure, the heavy feeling in my gut yet to fade, my rumbling belly warning me that the worst has yet to arrive. My booming flatulence is both relieving and terrifying, the pressure on my stomach lessened, but my anxiety of being found greatly heightened as I squat over the makeshift pit I quickly scraped out, only scant minutes away from camp.
After a few more grueling minutes, sweet relief is finally found, my bowels emptied for the first time in five days, held in by sheer force of will and a diet of nothing but broth and meat. With my arm no longer broken and my teeth almost fully regrown, the sweet, crisp crunch of vegetables is something I will never go a meal without again, this pain and suffering easily avoidable. Fiber is love, Fiber is life.
Pulling up my pants, I stretch before turning for a glimpse at the beast that I unleashed. Not as impressive as it felt, which fills me with disappointment. Even if I was never going to show anyone, sometimes you just want to feel pride about a good poop. Kicking dirt over the fruit of my labor, I quickly run back to the camp to wash my hand with soap. Shuddering at the memory of what I just endured, I change my mind and head towards the river instead, to take a bath. I want to feel clean again.
There are some things that I will never get used to and shitting in full view of everyone around me is one of them. The village has actual outhouses, and the cities even have a sewer system, but out here, everyone just pops a squat over the trench we use as a latrine, without a care in the world.
Pooping is just one of those things best done alone.
A quick bath in the cold river sets my body to shivering, but the sight of the roosequins swimming around brings a smile to my blue lips, their sleek, furred forms cutting through the water as they chase down fish and aquatic predators with ease. So many quins working together and they become the kings of the river, unrivaled and fearless despite the many dangerous carnivores lurking beneath the surface. I was warned not to bathe without them around, or else I might lose a foot or worse.
Zabu zips in and out of the river, his dark brown fur gleaming in the early morning sunlight as he brings gifts of food and shiny rocks to Shana, who lays cuddled up next to Adujan as she sits in quiet meditation. She does that a lot lately, to the point of neglecting her Forms, something I feel is wrong. I mean, it’s nice to have chi available, but we’re so far away from learning how to really use it, I feel like physical prowess is far more important at this point in our lives. She’s stubborn though, still cultivating in every spare moment she has. I should ask someone to help her, be her Mentor, but I don’t really know anyone suitable besides Akanai, and that would be cruel.
Managing to take advantage of that fact, I snuck away from her constant supervision to do my business. They’ve all been watching me like hawks for the past five days, Adujan, Mila, Alsantset, and Akanai, having hushed meetings together, always going silent when I approach. It makes me uncomfortable and highly motivated to fix myself up, their piercing stares full of concern, worry, and expectations. Each one of them has approached me with warmth in their eyes, asking questions about my well-being, wanting to talk about inane things like my favorite foods, or colors, or what my plans are for the future. It’s exhausting.
I know that they’re really only looking out for me, concerned about my state of mind, but I’m fine, I can keep being a Sentinel. There are no voices in my head, no bursts of anger or depression, no more slips of the tongue, I’ve just been meditating and fixing my left arm, not happy and cheerful, but not depressed either. My right arm is still stumpy and missing, but it feels whole, with intermittent pangs of pain. I have no idea how to regrow it, not as simple as just throwing chi at the stump until an arm sprouts, but I have an appointment later tonight with Tokta where he promised to help walk me through the process. I expect to be very busy in the coming weeks, and likely in much pain, the regrowing of nerves highly unpleasant if past experiences are anything to go by.
I still need help with some things, like eating and getting dressed, but I’m on my way towards being self sufficient once again. It’s exhausting always being around someone. Sometimes, I just want to be alone, to recharge and regroup, let my mind rest and reset, but that has been impossible lately. It took real planning and deception just so I could take a shit, which is ridiculous. Worse, with Adujan sharing my tent, I can’t … relax, and it is driving me up the wall, laying so close to her every night. When I finally fixed my broken arm, I figured she would move back in with Sumila and Song, but she just stayed in my tent, like nothing had changed.
Shaking myself dry, I quickly bundle up in my clothes, a plain hemp shirt and pants, brown and boring, with a leather belt and a wool-lined leather vest to keep me warm. Despite it being the height of summer, it can still get pretty chilly when the wind blows, and the vest is easily shed if it gets too hot. Nature and training are winning the war of attrition against my clothes, this being my last undamaged outfit, and the worst part was that there isn’t really anyone I can borrow clothes from other than the women. All the men are too tall or too wide, my body looking tiny and scrawny next to any one of the Sentinels, averaging around 200 cm in height, some reaching close to 250cm. It’s not fair. It’s like being a normal guy in a world of beefcakes, how am I supposed to compare? At least the women are in more varying sizes. Akanai towers above me by almost 30 cm, but is still overshadowed by many of the men. Sumila is about even with my height, Adujan and Li Song about 8-10 cm taller, and Mei Lin is tiny and adorable, her forehead barely reaching my chin.
The sun warms my skin and dries my hair as I quietly plunk down next to Adujan, satisfied by my successful deception. “How was your shit? I bet it was difficult, you haven’t gone in days.” Not so successful after all. I can’t believe she’s been keeping track of my bowel movements, who does that?
Shana lifts her head at the sound, her cute nose twitching as she sniffs me, hoping for a treat. She is the sweetest quin I know, always cuddling with Adujan. I wish Zabu was that sweet, but he barely tolerates me petting him. I should just get a dog. “You remember that snake we made your shield from? It looked like that, brown and perfectly coiled. The snake was just a bit smaller though.”
Her face crinkles in fake disgust. “Well, you didn’t fall in it, so congratulations. Unless you did fall in and that’s why you took a bath.” She opens her eyes and treats me to her trademarked mocking half-smile and a small, reluctant sniff, my heart fluttering a bit at the sight, but I quickly shut it down. “It seems that you’re a shy crapper, even going as far as digging a hole out in the woods. Is Falling Rain too sophisticated to use the latrines like everyone else?”
A burning heat rises from my neck to my cheeks. “Stop asking so many questions and get back to work, you slacker. What are you even doing pretending to cultivate?”
“I noticed you were trying to get away and I wanted to know why. You are so odd, why go to so much trouble just to take a shit?” Rolling my eyes at her and ignoring her question, I lean back on my one elbow, feigning indifference while inwardly cringing and hoping that she didn’t stick around to watch or listen. I can’t even poop in solitude. This world sucks.
Zabu arrives in front of us, dripping wet from his foray in the river and deposits a pair of large fish, at least ten kg each, in front of Shana, small mouthfuls missing from each one, before quickly running back to the river, ready to forage for more food. Shana graciously accepts the gift, stretching out and neatly gobbling up the meal, the sounds of loud crunching coming from her mouth as she snacks away in delight. “Poor Zabu, he’s been working so hard for over a week now, feeding fat, lazy Shana all of his food.” I wish he would try to win my affection like that, stupid fluffy jerk.
“Their courtship is over and Shana is preparing to lay eggs.” Adujan takes the bait, and begins talking about the quins, one of her favorite subjects. Only half listening to her, I smile and watch as she speaks enthusiastically, my mind wandering and overlaying her image with that of Yan, my wife from the dream.
Despite knowing that the memories in my head are made up, there are still a few lingering aftereffects. For one, I am now incredibly attracted to most of the women in my life. I find myself pining away for the farmer’s daughter back in the village who always smiles at the twins when I bring them around to pick apples, or the lovely tailor who smiles suggestively when she measures me, her hands maybe wandering a little as she talks about how I’ve grown. I’ve even wanted to take Mila in my arms and kiss her neck, or spoon Yan as she sleeps next to me, or try to put a smile on Song’s face, because I know it is beautiful and gentle, a sight that heals the soul.
Except that I know none of those feelings are real, and that if I were to act on them, it would not be fair to myself or the women. I’m not attracted to them, I’m attracted to a false version of them, a mental character of my own devising that is loosely based on them. Yet, against my better judgment, I continue to lay there and watch Yan as her face lights up as she talks, no longer dour and surly, full of passion and excitement, wanting to just place my head in her lap and enjoy the moment.
“… and then, Shana will keep the eggs warm all through the winter as Zabu works to keep her fed, and when spring comes we will have several quin pups to play with.” Her eagerness is apparent, her hands clasped together. Things like this are why I know my feelings aren’t real. She is nothing like the Yan from my dreams, more defined and real than the image I had, which was just a puppet that ceded to my every wish, never surprising or challenging me. She is a real person, and I am in love with a false phantom that just happens to look like her.
Her happy expression fades a little, her shoulders slumping. “It’s a shame though. Shana will likely be taken away from me so that the trainers can begin teaching the pups, and I’ll be given a replacement mount. You will too, the quins don’t like being separated from their young.” Her sorrow plain to see, Adujan strokes Shana’s fur, eliciting a few happy chirps from the quin.
“Wait, the quins don’t belong to us?” I get to replace Zabu? I’m both sad and a little happy. Maybe my next quin will be nicer. And smell better.
Giving me a cute grimace and a pointed look, she makes a little sound of derision. “Zabu and Shana were raised and trained by the Sentinels. While each one of us is given a personal mount, in the end they still belong to the Chief Provost.” Her gaze turns back to Shana, looking wistful. “I would purchase her but it would take me years to save up the coin, and it seems that Shana is ready to mate now. No matter, she will be well cared for, and I can purchase her when I am able.”
“Who takes care of them? Why don’t you get a job doing that, you obviously love quins.” I wonder how much it would cost to buy Shana? I should ask Akanai later. Adujan is obviously going to be heartbroken if she loses the sweet little quin, and maybe I can surprise her. I guess I’ll buy Zabu as well if he isn’t too expensive, but only so I can have an undisputed claim on his pups.
“Quin rearing is left to older, retired Sentinels, ones who are no longer able to fight, but still hale and healthy. How do you manage to not know even the most basic things?”
After a few more minutes of easy conversation, I sit up and cultivate, making sure I have enough chi for my lessons, and strengthening my core. The more my core can hold, the more closely bound my chi is, the more control I will have over it. I’m cultivating normally without the ring mostly because there is no one with the spare time to watch me and, if I’m being honest, I’m still not too comfortable using it. The surging power followed by the lulling calm, even forewarned and prepared, still manages to catch me off guard, leaving me uncomfortably shaken and drained. Maybe my ring is faulty or something, but no matter, slow and steady wins the race, or at the very least lets me survive longer.
With a quick break for lunch, a delicious meal of roasted veggies and rice, I transition into practicing the forms, using Peace in my left hand, an awkward endeavor, but I don’t really have an alternative. Besides, I’ve lost my right arm twice already, I really should learn how to fight with both hands. And use chopsticks too, although I kind of like being fed by Adujan and Sumila, a small, guilty pleasure. Throughout my practice, I search for enlightenment, that wondrous feeling of understanding, but it eludes me, a feeling as if I’m staring through dirty glass, and what I seek is on the other side, muddled and only barely visible, my body feeling awkward and foreign when I practice certain movements.
It’s been like that for a few days now, banging my head against that dirty glass, trying to see what it is that I’m missing. In particular, there are two movement forms which I’ve been almost able to combine, Prancing Stride, which is like it sounds, stepping forward while lifting the knees up high, an elongated, overemphasized step, combined with Rising Steps, which contrary to the name, is a stomping motion. I guess I would be rising if the air were to solidify beneath my feet, but really, it’s just like crushing grapes, ungainly and inelegant.
I can’t figure out what I’m missing about the movement, it seems fine to me, but if feels wrong. My gut churns, and this time, I know it isn’t constipation, so there must be something I’m not noticing. Unlike the other combinations I’ve learned, this feels more like two separate pieces smashed together, instead of the smooth, fluid melding that it should be. It’s as if I’m going through separate steps, instead of one complete motion.
I’ll figure it out eventually, or I can always move on to other pursuits. That’s the beauty of the forms, a near endless combination of movements, each one both simple and infinitely complex. It’s easy to throw a good punch, impossible to throw a perfect one, but it is in the pursuit of perfection that I continue to practice. There’s something very zen about it, repeating the same series of movements day after day, and learning something new after hundreds or even thousands of repetitions, improving ever so slightly each day. Even if I don’t learn anything, the physical exertion is calming, neither slow nor fast, only focusing on the movement, the moment, for hours without tiring.
My newfound appreciation for the forms leaves me relaxed and happy, my muscles a little sore, a refreshing sweat upon my brow, and I head towards the western edge of camp with Adujan, where Alsantset is hard at work taking reports from the returning patrols, Sumila and Li Song working as her aides, all of them too busy to greet me. The two lovely young women covered in ink stains as they work furiously to copy the reports, their brushes moving in elegant motions as they write in impossibly neat, tiny characters. Again, my mind compares the two of them to the women in my dreams, but they are different enough that it causes me little heartache.
Calligraphy is one of those things I haven’t really learned well, my writing little better than most children’s, but I do enjoy watching it in motion. Every written word has a proper sequence, a time to press down with the brush or to lightly flick, allowing a trailing off of the stroke. The finished product looks refined and elegant, yet somehow each style is unique. I can easily discern the writer of the reports, just by reading it. Sumila likes to add tiny flourishes that add style to the writing without compromising readability, while Alsantset is more dignified and proper, a curve where there should be a curve, a line where there should be a line, yet still with its own flair. Li Song writes in neat, almost stamped characters, her brush moving in short, mechanical strokes, but there are still a few personal touches in the writing, a melding of two squiggles into one, or an opening brush stroke slightly longer than it should be.
It’s just like the forms and coming here to watch them at work as they write leaves me inspired to learn to write properly on my own. I realized this when I asked Sumila to write my bi-weekly letter to Mei Lin, and I’ve come here to watch them write ever since. The subtle variations in writing are similar to the variations in fighting, using the same basic structure to come up with different solutions to the same problem, and again, I feel as if I am looking through the dirty, stained window, close to understanding something, but not all the way there. I don’t even know what it is that I’m trying to understand, but it can’t hurt to try, even if all I do is unlock the profound mysteries of calligraphy or something stupid like that.
Akanai arrives with the last patrol unit, having a brief discussion with Alsantset about the sentries and their positioning, before riding off to take care of other business. Alsantset and Tokta are in charge when Akanai is out chasing down Defiled, but Tokta doesn’t really take part in the military aspect of command, despite being a capable warrior himself. Then again, he is pretty busy keeping soldiers alive, but in the interim, Alsantset is the boss of the camp, hard at work every day. Her duties for the day done, she grins at me and drapes an arm over my shoulder, pulling me in for a hug. “I do so enjoy being greeted by you after work.” Throwing me a sly look, she whispers, “Although perhaps I am not the one you are here to greet.” Her eyes dart towards Sumila.
Terrifying. As cute as Sumila is, I don’t really have any romantic intentions towards her, mostly because Akanai would make the worst mother-in-law ever. “I’m just here to pick you up for dinner, Sister. You work so hard, I feel like a wastrel just leisurely practicing all day.” I’ve asked to help but she just insists that I work on healing and training. Despite my objections, both internal and external, I still wonder if her lips would feel the same as I dreamed, sweet and soft.
We walk back towards the cooking fires chatting easily, the past few days almost relaxing for me, despite the still present threat of Defiled. If it was before, I would have been nervous about a possible attack, fretting and worrying, but I’ve come to trust the people around me, knowing that they are doing everything they can to keep the camp safe. If the Defiled do attack, I would be better off with two hands, so I’ve concentrated on that, with little else in mind.
Like Mom said, why bother worrying about what I can’t control?
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